By R.L. Bynum
As No. 10 North Carolina heads into its opening football game Friday at Virginia Tech, there has been a shift toward normalcy in how the team proceeds on any given week in dealing with the pandemic.
One big, obvious change is that there will be a capacity, and likely loud, crowd for the 6 p.m. game (ESPN) at Lane Stadium, unlike the practically empty Kenan Stadium that greeted the Tar Heels for last season’s opener against Syracuse.
“It was so quiet last year,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said Monday. “After the Syracuse game, it was the most eerie feeling I’ve ever had. We had players run down to the end zone and sing the fight song to nobody. And there was absolutely no noise after the game and it was surreal. It felt like a scrimmage or something.”
UNC’s football team hasn’t reached a 100% vaccination rate like its women’s basketball team, but exceeding 85% has allowed Coach Mack Brown more flexibility in many procedures during a game week.
He can bring everybody together for meetings in the team room, unlike last year when those gatherings were held on the other side of Kenan Stadium in the Blue Zone. There, Brown said that they were “scattered out all over the place; there is just not as much emotion.”
The team can eat together, unlike last season, and will be able to eat on the bus ride back to Chapel Hill rather than at the stadium.
While a few perks make it feel more like normal, Brown said that he’s followed the lead of Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who has his team returning to some of the protocols followed last season.
“They’re just going to act like it’s there, it’s real,” Brown said of Arians’ approach. “So, whether you’re vaccinated or not, we’re going to wear a mask and try to social distance and make sure that we’re as safe as we possibly can be as a team.”
During those inside meetings, everybody is wearing a mask.
The ACC protocols require that players only get tested for COVID-19 once a week, but the Tar Heels will be tested twice a week under university protocols.
“We’re pretty much going back to what we did last year,” Brown said. “Our guys handled it really well last year and we’ve got to hope that they do the same this year. They’re going to have to live in their bubble and they’re going to have to go to class. But they’re going to have to take care of themselves, for their safety and the safety of others but also to have a chance to play.”
Another big difference from last year is that the players are going to on-site classes after taking them all online a year ago. That, of course, means mixing with a student body that UNC has not required to be vaccinated.
Brown said that he and his wife Sally got vaccinated as soon as they had a chance but he hasn’t put pressure on his players to get vaccinated.
“I felt like that it was really, really important for me to educate our team,” Brown said. “So, every day, I would bring articles in, and still do to this day. And it would be on both sides. I tried to be as fair as I could possibly be and told guys if you’re on the edge of getting your vaccination, go talk to the doctors. Go talk to them. Go visit with them.
“At no time did we ever want to make somebody feel uncomfortable if they didn’t want to take the vaccine,” he said. “We’ve said from day one, we’re not going to play you or not play you based on whether you’re vaccinated or not. You’re going to have to be really safe either way. You’re going to have to wear your mask, but you’re going to have to be careful, like last year, especially if you’re not vaccinated.
“And also told them the difference is that they will be treated differently with testing if they’re vaccinated as compared to if they’re not,” Brown said. “I’m sure they’re tired of me talking about it, but I’ve tried to be fair, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
It isn’t clear which players aren’t vaccinated, but quarterback Sam Howell wouldn’t say either way when he was asked directly earlier this month and instead mentioned that it’s everybody’s choice.
“I will have to sit here now, every week, and be concerned about whether someone will play or not,” Brown said. “That’s just the way it is. But even if they were vaccinated and they show symptoms, then they would be tested. And if they have a positive for COVID, they’re not going to play, either.”
Brown doesn’t expect many of the unvaccinated players to decide to get the shot with the season about to start.
“The guys that have decided they don’t want to probably aren’t going to past this point unless something changes that we’re not aware of in our country. So, let’s go play but be smart. Be careful,” Brown said while holding up his mask. “I wear this everywhere indoors, every day if I’m around people. And I’m telling our coaches you have to do the same. This isn’t funny. This isn’t a joke, it’s real, it’s facts and let’s be safe.”
Considering the number of Tar Heels who are vaccinated, it seems unlikely that they have so few available players that they wouldn’t be able to play. If that happens in the ACC, the team that can’t play automatically gets a loss in the game.
Every week, the tests on the field will only come after each player passes COVID-19 tests.
ACC pool photo